Like all Montreal wintertime adventures, this one started with the dressing up game - a highly specialised procedure which involves carefully dressing from foot to head, ensuring that all bare skin is locked away and no draughts can penetrate. We shuffled out of the house unable to walk or move properly, having to rotate entire bodies to look around rather than merely heads. I stood in the cold, waiting for the bus to take us downtown, feeling self conscious in my frilly blue women's long johns, even though they were hidden under my jeans. My wife had forced me in to them, declaring that I would freeze to death if I didn't wear long johns this evening. I protested weakly when I found out they were her mothers. They're clean, she told me, and made me put them on. Frilly and feminine or not, I was glad to be wearing them on this cold Canadian evening as we headed into the city to attend the 'Montreal High Lights' festival, or in French, the 'Festival Montreal En Lumiere'.
The festival is a relative newcomer in this town of a hundred festivals and this was the first time my wife had attended, I asked her what we would be going to see and she seemed unsure, she knew there would be some music, some lights and some heaters to keep warm. Unsatisfied, I did some research on the internet and what I found sounded rather good (and no, I never found out what Fallas were):
Free outdoor concerts and activities with themes emphasising light, fire and pyrotechnics. Festivalgoers are invited to come warm up their winter evenings, alone or with family or friends. Gathered around bonfires, sipping wine or hot chocolate, crowds can watch the antics of strolling street entertainers and performers, gaze at the spellbinding light displays, as well as dance to the beat of the free outdoor sound and light shows, against a backdrop of the burning of the Fallas and majestic fireworks.
So, half an hour later we stood staring at a large, empty scaffolding structure that creaked in protest against the extreme cold. Looking around there were large colourful balloons; some small fires with a couple of people huddled around them, hands thrust out towards the fire; an empty dance stage with a deserted DJ booth and a small hut selling sausages and marshmallows for toasting on the fires. There couldn't have been more than fifty people in total.
My wife suggested that we might be a little early, so we sloped off to Chinatown to eat some bean curd and drink Manhattans for a while, defrosting our fingers and toes.
When we returned an hour or so later we were just in time to see the first act of the evening - Fulgor. A small crowd of about a hundred people or so was huddled together around the scaffolding structure staring at eight figures that looked as if they were freezing to death. They all wore white boiler suits with a kind of climbing harness built in. The show began. Bizarre guitar music was played by one member (who reminded me of the bass player out of Level 42 for some reason) whilst another beat out a good rhythm on a drum kit. The figures in the boiler suits wandered up and down the scaffolding, seemingly aimlessly, and pulled strange poses. I glanced around at the crowd (involving a full body rotation) to see how it was going down; there were a lot of blank expressions. I looked over towards a set of nearby heat lamps and thought about suggesting maybe wandering over when the angle grinding started. Four of the eight had produced angle grinders and were now single-mindedly sawing bits of scaffolding into bits. The guitar player bobbed and strummed and one man ran about with a spotlight, shining it into the angle grinders' faces.
This continued for a while until they got bored with manual work and all trooped off to the top of the structure where there was a kind of metal-poled roundabout which four of them strapped themselves onto (using the climbing harnesses) and hung over the edge on long bits of rope. Two Fulgor team members then turned a large handle, which made the four of them spin slowly in a circle. They made various poses as they span, including swimming-through-the-air and pretending-to-fall-off.
After about five minutes of this I found myself stamping my feet and looking around for some hope of escape, or perhaps some of the wine that I was informed people would be sipping. When I looked back, Fulgor were wandering aimlessly around again, having finished with their merry-go-round routine. Then they all hooked themselves on some other bits of rope and began to spin themselves around poles and hang over scaffolding gaps for a while. The crowd was looking a little bit restless now, they were probably wondering, like me, where all the light came into the routine. I couldn't believe that the man with the spotlight (who was still running around, shining the thing into people's eyes as they tried to unhook themselves from their harnesses) was all they had.
Then came the crowd-pleaser. Catherine wheels suddenly surged into life all over the stage, one Fulgor member span around in a hoop whilst the rest of them let off hand-held spinning fireworks (which lasted about ten seconds each) followed by large flare-like devices that spat sparks out the ends. For half a minute, there was brilliant light everywhere and it was wonderful, everybody forgot their feet and simply stared at the pyrotechnics.
At the end of all this, it appeared that the man spinning on the hoop had died and he was carried with great solemnity down to the front of the stage by the other members. They all stood there and stared at the crowd, who all stared back at them. The lights had faded away and there was silence. Someone realised that it was the end of the show and started to clap, then everyone else joined in. A couple of hundred people clapped but there was something wrong - there was no noise. Hundreds of gloved and mittened hands simply made little paf-paf noises when clapped together. It was like a polite whisper.
After a little while someone cheered, finding a solution, and everyone joined in. We cheered because they were bloody brave folk to perform on a night like this, and because we all enjoyed the fireworks at the end.
We left Fulgor, who scampered off to go and warm up, and wandered over to the dance floor, where we were told the next event would be taking place. A DJ duly appeared and started playing some easy listening techno. About fifteen people danced around, looking more like they were trying to keep warm than strut their stuff. My wife returned form the dance-floor complaining that she couldn't dance whilst swaddled in so many layers of clothing. By this time though, my attention had been claimed by a large ski-slope type of structure, which I had failed to notice earlier in the evening, which people were sliding down on rubber rings, looking terrified. We joined the queue.
After twenty minutes of standing around clutching a rubber ring (of the type more normally seen floating on rivers) I found myself at the top, sitting in it. The man who pushed me off told me to make sure that I put my body weight forward at the end of the slope to avoid flipping over. Okay, I told him, let's go.
Halfway down the run my ring had rotated so that I was now going backwards. As I hurtled down the icy slope I wondered if that meant I should now lean back at the end, or still lean forward. I had visions of flipping over and grinding my face into the ice. The look of anxiety that appeared on my face was the look of terror I had seen earlier on other people.
After surviving the 'glissade', we decided to head to a bar to defrost our feet and hands again, so crept off, telling each other that we would return after we were warm again for another hour or two. Which of course, we didn't.